Habermas, Knowledge and Resistance to Change

One of the things I’d like to do with this blog is to try to build a bridge between dense and complicated academic theory, and the real world – where some of these dense and brilliant ideas might be put to use. Today’s focus is Jurgen Habermas – and what his theory of knowledge interests can tell us about organisational change and resistance.

In his theory of knowledge, Habermas identifies three “knowledge interests” – three motivations people seek and create knowledge:

Rational/Empirical: Knowledge that is created with the aim of better predicting and controlling our environment

Historical/Hermeneutic: Knowledge that is created to establish reliable inter-subjective meaning – ie knowledge that allows people to establish a common frame of reference, a common understanding and co-ordinate around it

Critical/Emancipatory: Knowledge that is created to challenge the status quo, and to make the invisible constraints of language visible and thus changeable.

(For a good academic overview, see Bauer &Gaskell (2000): p 12-15)

Where this becomes relevant for organisational change is when you consider knowledge interests in an organisation. While there is undoubtedly a need for rational/empirical knowledge of the outside world, any organisation is only permitted to exist if its members find an ability to co-ordinate some of their personal motivations. In other words, the creation of historical/hermeneutic knowledge is necessary for the existence of an organisation.

All too often, change is approached by managers from an empirical perspective. The only knowledge required is that there is a change in circumstance which logically implies a need to change something within the organisation.

While the logic for change may be sound and irrefutable, if the change implied is not consonant with the hermeneutic knowledge that lives within the system, people will be unwilling to accept it. People need to create new hermeneutic knowledge, to re-affirm how their personal motivations and their identity relate to this changed environment.

Resistance, in this framework is not employees being lazy, or irrational; it is the conflict between a new way of doing things and an existing consensus on the identity, goals and meaning of the organisation. Resistance in this sense should not be crushed, but engaged with, understood and included.